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Automation is an emerging trend in the transportation space. Self-driving vehicles are no longer a technology of the future; they are on our streets today, with tests being rolled out in cities like Pittsburgh, Paris and Singapore. Forward-thinking policymakers and smart businesses are already engaging with this trend and attracting buy-in from end users.

Pulling Ahead: Anticipating a Self-Driving World

Today’s autonomous vehicles are equipped with systems that allow them to perceive the environment and plan responses without human input. The international Society of Engineers has defined six levels of automation for vehicles, ranging from level zero—fully controlled by a human—to level five, which may not require any human input at all and could transform the vehicle into a social space for working or relaxing. The current conversation revolves around level three vehicles, which are fully capable of driving themselves but require a human to be in the driver seat at all times, ready to take control.

In a study of 38 cities, Bloomberg Philanthropies found that the top three anticipated uses of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are last-mile transit, taxis and mass transit. The sharing economy will experience profound changes as AVs increasingly become a part of everyday life. Here are the key ways in which Europe and the United States are embracing this emerging industry.

Leading by Example: Europe’s Effective Communication is Best in Class

The European Union (EU) has recognized the benefits that AVs can provide and is leading the way to ensure cooperation at a regional level among all stakeholders, creating an environment favourable to AV development. For example, the EU recently adopted a plan that will see driverless trucks operating between cities in as little as two years. Reduced transit times and fuel costs are a few of the many expected benefits.

Furthermore, most European countries have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, creating consistent traffic regulation across borders. The design of highways connecting cities also remains consistent, making an ideal situation for AV testing. In 2016, the Convention was updated to explicitly allow driverless technologies on European roads, further attracting AV development to Europe.

Pioneers in Regulation

At the national level, European countries are also encouraging the growth of the AV industry. Germany is one of the first countries to legalize AVs on all their roads. While the legislation stops short of allowing vehicles to pilot themselves without a human at the wheel, it does show progress towards an automated future. The Netherlands has recently taken this a step further, and now allows for the testing of AVs without the physical presence of human drivers. In fact, the Netherlands ranks globally as the country most prepared for the wide release of self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Sweden is planning for the future of its public transit system and has recently begun an ambitious test program for self-driving minibuses.

With all these countries working under a common framework, Europe is creating a safer and more efficient road network through the development of a nationwide strategy to integrate AVs.

Leading by Innovation: North America’s Race to the Automated Vehicle Frontier

Long an industry leader in the automated vehicle space, North America’s contributions to self-driving are fueled heavily by tech hubs on the west coast of the United States. With companies like Uber and Tesla making headlines for both successes and failures, America is leading the pack in its bid to get fully autonomous vehicles on the road.

Pioneers in Technology

There is no doubt that California is the American hotbed for AV technology. Waymo (Google) has long been testing its version of the AV in California, logging more than 2.3 million miles. Companies like Ford and GM are also present on the California self-driving scene, and Arizona is another key player in the industry, with over 600 self driving vehicles on the state’s roads. Both Arizona and California have recently allowed fully autonomous vehicles to be tested without human supervisors behind the wheel.

Speeding into Red Tape

While individual states take the lead on AVs, there is a bigger problem on the horizon. Unlike the EU, there is no governing consensus on the regulation of AVs, resulting in a patchwork of different approaches across states. When Audi’s self-driving test vehicle crosses from California into Nevada, it must pull over and change license plates, allowing it to continue in driverless mode. While this may seem minor, it’s a symptom of a larger problem. The Federal Government has recognized the issue and is attempting to streamline the approach to AVs at the national level. However, fears over safety and cyber attacks have stalled the legislation from being enacted. Furthermore, any federal legislation regulating the use of AVs would override state regulation, putting innovator states like California and Arizona at a disadvantage.  

A Driverless Future

It is clear the European Union, with its strong centralized regulations, is an attractive environment for AV development. While the same legislation may not be in place, American tech companies have been innovating in the space since the very beginning. AVs are already here, promising a wave of efficiency that will transform the transportation industry. The only question remains is who will realize the benefits first?

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Image: Shutterstock / TierneyMJ